Speaking to Walton Goggins just a few short eves before the release of The Hateful Eight — which Goggins is in a lot — is like speaking to pure, condensed and concentrated bliss. Right now, this guy is one happy fella.
Here’s an actor who has been working since a 1989 episode of In the Heat of the Night and spent years making ends meet with appearances in everything from The Next Karate Kid to an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. (Somehow, all three of these shows are mentioned in the interview ahead.)
Goggins started receiving accolades for his role on The Shield, then later for his work on Justified. Then he caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino (who told New York magazine earlier this year that he had seen Goggins do enough “faux-Quentin” dialogue by that point), who cast him in a small role in Django Unchained. Now Goggins is playing one of the lead characters in Tarantino’s new three-hour long epic, The Hateful Eight. As Chris Mannix, Goggins co-stars as a former Confederate soldier who says he’s the new local sheriff, but some of the others don’t buy it when he’s thrust into a situation where he’s trapped with a bunch of other ornery cusses.
So, yeah, it makes a lot of sense that Goggins would be this happy.
The second half of The Hateful Eight made me want to re-watch the first half again.
You know, I don’t know what the pinnacle of Quentin Tarantino’s ability to tell a story will be. But I know he’s arrived at a place that’s so rewarding and so different and so full… I was blown away and overjoyed at the tightening of the rubber band in the first part and the suspense that is inherent before the intermission. Because, after it all goes off.
When did you first read the script? I assume shortly before the live read?
Well, the script we did for the live read was different than what Quentin filmed. You know, when I found out that I was going to do the stage reading, I was in an Alamo van headed to my rental car – I was in Mexico. And a couple was in there with me, they were fans of Justified and The Shield. They were really nice. We had just taken a selfie! And the phone rings and I pulled it out of my pocket, and there’s Quentin Tarantino. It’s the man calling. And the couple sees my phone the same time I see it and they say, “I think you need to answer that.” He invited me to his house and we sat out back for the time it took to read it. For the entire time, I could hear him laughing every time I said, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
I said, “I have one question for you. That is, am I the sheriff of Red Rock or am I not the sheriff of Red Rock?” He said, “I need you to answer that question, and I don’t want to know your answer to that question.”
Are you ever going to tell him?
Never. He’s the only person who has never asked me.
Are you going to tell anyone?
We’ve been doing it for a year and a half, since the live reading, since he gave me that directive. Everyone else in the cast, we talk about it all the time. But people who have seen the movie or people in your position, he’s the only person who has never asked and will never asked.
Do you actually answer it when people ask?
Never! Are you kidding me? I am the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Even my wife will never know that. No one will ever know that. But I have an answer. I have a definitive answer.
Let’s say 80 years from now, you’ve had this long life, but it’s all coming to an end. Do you tell someone?
Eighty years from now, I will be 124 years old.
You can make it.
If I’m living that long, chances are I’m living in Japan eating fish and rice and that’s it.
I think you can make it to 124. My money is on you. I think you can do it.
[Laughs.] You know, I can dodge a bullet with the best of them. What’s so interesting, and Sam Jackson spoke of this the other day, when you first start out and you look like any person in The Hateful Eight, chances are you’re going to take a bullet. It’s whether you take a bullet on page one or page 15 or page 30.
Speaking of, when you were reading the script, were you getting deeper and deeper into it thinking, “Man, I am still in this!?” You are a legitimate lead character.
Yeah. It is. And you hope that you can last long enough and you can tell stories for the right reasons over a period of time, and someone like Quentin Tarantino will give you a shot that Quentin has given me.
And we have conflicted feelings about this character?
[Laughs] Are you talking about Chris Mannix or Walton Goggins?
Let’s go with Chris Mannix.
You realize very quickly he’s in an arrested state of development. He’s never had an independent thought in his life. His worldview has been dictated by his father, who was a very famous guerilla fighter during the Civil War. You know, he’s probably never had a conversation with an African-American. So, he’s a blowhard. He’s an unruly, 17-year-old agitator. I don’t know how he did it in three hours, but he goes from an abandoned, lost little boy to becoming a man. In the two television shows I’ve done, it took 84 hours to do what Quentin has done in the time he’s given Chris Mannix.
Speaking of your television work, what did you think about it when Tarantino told New York he had watched you for six years doing “faux-Quentin dialogue?”
[Laughs.] Well, you know, in some ways it’s “faux-Quentin dialogue.” I get what he’s saying, nobody writes like Quentin, man. That is lyrical poetry. It is alchemy… but Quentin was a big fan of Justified – a very big fan of Justified.
What does this mean going forward for you? You’ve been doing this a long time. You gained a lot of accolades from Justified, but after this long doing this job, being the lead in a Tarantino movie has to be a new level.
[Laughs.] I am that story. I am the guy who was 19 years old and I got a voucher in the mail from American Express to go in debt. But it was the reward benefit that came with that offer, which was a round-trip ticket east of the Mississippi for $99 or west of the Mississippi for $199. It’s the reason I got the card. I looked at that and said, “I’m going to Los Angeles.” This is my chance. And I was dropped off on Sunset Boulevard with $300 in my pocket and one guy’s beeper number who I had done an episode of In the Heat of the Night with. No friends and no money and no life. And here I am, 25 years later, with a beautiful career and work I am extremely proud of.
I’ve been happy with my career for a very long time. And for someone like me who did not have the emotional maturity – and what I mean by that is I fought with insecurity and the anxiety of a young man coming from a small town to a city of nine million people. Any level of success that was beyond what was doled out to me over time would have been too much for me. I couldn’t have had it any other way. For me, it was the perfect stock: It just goes up.
I watched a clip of you on an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s shocking how recognizable you are, even then, wearing an interesting tie. Does that make sense? You say one line to Jason Priestley, but it’s you.
It does. At the end of the day, what we do, storytelling, for me has never been about ego. It’s been about the work and turning yourself over to an imaginary set of circumstances. If there’s ever been a group of people who have been more in love with what they do for a living, I would be in that group.
You were in The Next Karate Kid with Hilary Swank.
With Hilary! A very good friend! Even though we haven’t seen each other in awhile, when we do, it’s wonderful. It was her first role in that way. Goddamn, man, art in general is just an extension or a reflection of who you are inside and what you are ready for. When The Shield happened for me, I would have never gotten a job in television then. Ever. The three networks would have never hired me. I don’t look that way. But when people’s desire for story changed and the pioneers of this new golden age of television came into power, and were given an opportunity to tell their stories – that was a world I fit in, man… I live every day in gratitude, perseverance and hard fucking work.
I’m looking forward to when The Hateful Eight is in theaters and people can actually see it.
Do you know what that means to me? Let’s all fucking do this together. Right? To experience the journey. It’s your favorite band! Oh, fuck, they’re playing the Garden! Or wherever they’re playing. Come on, let’s all fucking go and see them! That’s how I feel about this movie. Let’s go celebrate this shit!
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.